Whom Would MLK Assassinate?
Today, April 4, marks the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shot while
standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, where he was bearing witness in solidarity with striking sanitary
workers. At a time when our President, Barack Obama, is premeditatedly dealing death by night raid and by
remotely controlled drone-launched missiles, the transcendent nonviolent witness of Martin Luther King bids us
ask: “Whom would MLK assassinate?”
Martin Luther King wielded the powerful moral and political arsenal of nonviolent persuasion, economic and
social noncooperation with evil, and direct intervention through actions such as lunch counter sit-ins. These
acts not only tellingly obstructed and disrupted inequality and oppression as usual, but created in miniature
the patterns of a new “beloved community” growing like blades of grass through the hardened and cemented
structures of that oppression. While nonviolent action appealed to the humanity of the opponent, it also
exerted a very tangible although physically noninjurious coercion through the reality of economic
interdependence: let them feel the disadvantages of segregation in their purses, and their hearts and minds
On April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King gave a speech at Riverside
Church in New York in which he escalated his struggle, declaring nonviolent war not only on segregation and
racial discrimination in the U.S.A., but on the Vietnam War and economic oppression in all of its bearings,
regardless of the skin color or ethnicity of its victims. He targeted, not with lethal drone-based missiles or
coldly aimed bullets but with the nonviolent power of an aroused and inspired world, the poverty of violence
and the violence of poverty — with a special focus on his own country, the U.S.A.
Martin Luther King also courageously opposed the death penalty, a commitment reaffirmed by his partner Coretta
Scott King after his assassination. These heroic voices for peace and social justice remind us that blood
begets blood, terrorism begets terrorism, and revenge begets revenge — unless we dare to break the cycle.
Drone assassinations by executive fiat, premeditated killings of adversaries who could be captured and
humanely but securely imprisoned, because “we didn’t want detainees,” and death sentences for mass shooting
perpetrators which attempt to answer private mental illness by mass sociopathy, are part of the problem, not
Since 1967, when Martin Luther King spoke of the U.S.A. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world
today,” there have been new examples sadly supporting that memorable phrase. The Phoenix program of
assassination and the “Electronic Battlefield” in Vietnam; the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala
supported in the 1980’s as a “regrettable necessity” to make the region safe for Pentagon hegemony; the
bombing of Iraq in 1991 during “Desert Storm,” and again in 2003 for “Shock and Awe”; these are just some of
the noteworthy instances. And the remotely-controlled death and ruin inflicted in Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Yemen, and elsewhere by drones and their missiles, with victims ranging from the premeditatedly slaughtered
like Anwar al-Awlaki to anonymous children who need only be in the wrong place at the wrong time, underscore
Dr. King’s stark words, as timely now as ever.
The world at large has made hopeful strides in the last 45 years, modest but meaningful steps toward an order
where human rights are honored in practice as well as theory. Dr. King might take pleasure at Amnesty
International’s latest report that 97 nations have now abolished the death penalty for all crimes, with 140 in
all abolitionist either in law or in practice (by observing moratoria on executions, sometimes backed up by
international commitments to continue these moratoria). He might lament that the U.S.A. has become one of the
leading executioners, with the mentally ill and those lacking the economic wherewithal to hire good attorneys
as much-favored sacrificial candidates. And he might ask why a President claiming to follow his heritage
permits his administration to seek the federal death penalty in States which have abolished this barbaric
sanction such as New York and Rhode Island, and even in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which has a
constitutional bar against this cruel and unusual punishment.
The words and values of Martin Luther King also bid that we confront the structural violence of “business as
usual”: the dispossession, dislocation, and impoverishment of families through foreclosures, willful tearing
apart of the social safety net, and union-busting and union-preventing strategies. Nonviolence means not
acquiescing in these policies, but directing our just anger creatively to challenge them in ways that liberate
both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Reflecting on this spirit of nonviolence leads me back from Dr. King to an earlier champion of justice ready
unsparingly to confront the established order: Tom Paine. In January of 1793, having been one of the prime
advocates of trying “Louis Capet” (a form of address indicating that Louis XVI of France was now simply
another citizen in the new Republic), he spoke in defense of the former monarch’s life — and was almost
himself guillotined for his trouble.
How striking that, as I realized only while typing these last few lines, Tom Paine gave his speech to the
French National Convention on January 15, 1793 — the day of the year that, in 1929, 136 years later, was
to mark the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King.
And that fortuitous coincidence of dates brings to mind a resolve embodying the gentle relentless for which
Dr. King stands. In his address, Tom Paine proposed that rather than being executed, former monarch and
present citizen Louis Capet should be exiled to America. “There, hereafter, far removed from the miseries and
crimes of royalty, he may learn, from the constant aspect of public prosperity, that the true system of
government consists not in kings, but in fair, equal, and honourable representation.”
In keeping with the principles of Tom Paine and Martin Luther King alike, we may resolve on this fateful
anniversary to visit such figures as the ruling interests of the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Wal-Mart with a
salutary exile to an America where Dr. King’s dream has become a reality, an America where social democracy
thrives with economic as well as political human rights and universal health care for all.
Whom would MLK assassinate? No one!
Whom would MLK liberate? Everyone!